The 20 Best Music Videos of 2020

These videos represent a cross-section of who we are at a period in history that feels unmoored from time and reality.

Best Music Videos of 2020
Photo: YouTube

Music videos are like little snapshots in time, reflecting the politics, fashions, sexual mores, and latest technologies of a given period. More than any other visual medium, short-form videos can be quickly produced and distributed—at least compared to television and film. So when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded earlier this year, its impact was seen almost immediately in both the form and content of music videos, from HAIM’s remotely produced “I Know Alone” to Charli XCX’s crowd-sourced tribute to her fans, “Forever.” Of course, even the clips made prior to—or which don’t specifically address—the outbreak provide a glimpse into life in 2020: Beyoncé’s self-directed “Already” dovetails with America’s reckoning with the value of black lives and culture, while Rina Sawayama’s “XS” is a bitingly savage, not to mention gut-busting, sendup of society’s collective mainlining of late capitalism. The 20 videos below represent a cross-section of who we are at a period in history that feels unmoored from time and reality. Sal Cinquemani

Beyoncé featuring Shatta Wale and Major Lazer, “Already” (Dir: Beyoncé)

Beyoncé’s self-serious mode may be getting tired, but she strikes an indelible pose throughout “Already,” an exploration—or, rather, affirmation—of black identity. Just one vignette from the singer’s Black Is King visual album, the clip cuts between painterly shots of regal fashions and urban street dancing, presenting a pan-African vision of abundance and celebration. Cinquemani

Phoebe Bridgers, “I Know the End” (Dir: Alissa Torvinen)

The first half of Phoebe Bridgers’s video for “I Know the End” plays like a thriller: At one point, a girl in a nurse’s uniform blocks the singer’s exit, offering her an apple as she watches cautiously from behind a wall. Every interaction is surreal and inexplicable (especially Bridgers picking up the apple after it’s rolled across and floor, taking a bite out of it, and dropping it again), creating a disorienting and alienating reality in which little makes sense. Suddenly, as the song builds to its climactic ending, she sprints into the Los Angeles Coliseum, picks up her guitar, and screams into the microphone. The screen widens and Bridgers’s world opens up, giving us insight into her liberating relationship with music. Eric Mason

Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP” (Dir: Colin Tilley)

Colin Tilley’s video for “WAP” is an audacious visual interpretation of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s controversial ode to their, uh, “wet and gushy.” The clip is about as subtle as the song itself—tigers and snakes abound—but its cartoonishness belies a powerful feminist message: For those who are counting, there are zero men to be found in this sex-drenched Wonderland. Alexa Camp

Charli XCX, “Forever” (Dir: Dan Streit & Charli XCX)

For “Forever,” Charli XCX collected clips from her fans and compiled them into a wistful collage of hundreds of significant moments. Even as a mostly homemade video produced in isolation, the array of memories on display recreates a feeling of connectedness that was sorely in short supply throughout 2020. A simulacrum of a social life, Charli’s crowdsourced patchwork of friends and adventures, kisses and anniversaries, selfies and home videos expands the scope of the song, originally for Charli’s longtime boyfriend, into a tribute to her fans. Mason

Christine and the Queens, “La Vita Nuova” (Dir: Colin Solal Cardo)

Christine and the Queens’s 14-minute “La Vita Nuova” is an emotional masterwork that maps out the breadth of the singer’s vivid imagination. Every awe-inspiring shot and chills-inducing moment is choreographed with precision, and the video’s magic comes not only from its mythological creatures, but from the unbridled passion of Chris’s performance. Whether she’s dancing with an ensemble, feverishly chasing a boom mic, or licking Caroline Polachek’s neck, Chris’s charisma is timeless and spellbinding. Director Colin Solal Cardo and choreographer Ryan Heffington fill each frame with vigor and enchantment, creating a world unto itself. Mason

FKA twigs, “Sad Day” (Dir. Hiro Murai)

Just as she applied her study of pole dancing in the video for last year’s “Cellophane,” FKA twigs flexes her swordplay abilities in “Sad Day.” Director Hiro Murai slices the song into multiple passages, letting the story of the video drive the progression of the music. Just in the first two minutes, we see twigs transition from moving like a collapsing marionette to entering full action-hero mode, fighting co-star Teake until they crash through a window. And that’s just where the video begins; moments later, the two are flying over city streets until, through some breathtaking visual effects, they defeat each other. This tense, shocking moment would not be out of place in a techno-horror film, capturing the power of the body to create both beauty and revulsion. Mason

HAIM, “I Know Alone” (Dir: Jake Schreier)

Music videos featuring the Haim sisters performing painstakingly synchronized choreography are a dime a dozen at this point, but the clip for “I Know Alone” is a profoundly relatable visual presentation of an especially prescient song. “Been a couple days since I’ve been out/Calling all my friends, but they won’t pick up,” Danielle Haim sings as she, Este, and Alana stand six feet apart on an empty basketball court, swiping on imaginary cellphones. Directed and choreographed remotely, the video is both a sign of the times and a work of understated ingenuity. Cinquemani

Lauv, “Modern Loneliness” (Dir: Jason Lester)

From snapping the perfect selfie, to obsessively monitoring Instagram likes, to commiserating with strangers on Twitter, no other video this year captured the rush, isolation, ennui, and potential for human connection of virtual life in 2020 better than singer-songwriter Lauv’s aptly titled “Modern Loneliness.” Cinquemani

Dua Lipa, “Physical” (Dir: CANADA)

For all her skills as a pop vocalist and songwriter, Dua Lipa exudes an aloofness on stage and on camera that could be mistaken for a lack of charisma. With her Future Nostalgia project, however, the U.K. singer has come into her own, no more so than in the colorful video for the album’s second single, “Physical.” Employing a blend of animation, special effects, and clever editing, Lipa literally floats on air as an army of monochromatic dancers swirl around her in a flurry of kinetic physicality. Camp

Kelly Lee Owens featuring John Cale, “Corner of My Sky” (Dir: Kasper Häggström)

The visual concept for Kelly Lee Owens’s “Corner of My Sky,” in which a man repeatedly places sliced bread in a toaster only for it to mysteriously disappear, is intriguing enough on its own, but it’s Welsh actor Michael Sheen’s performance—all grizzled consternation mixed with calm resolve in the face of the inexplicable—that makes this video so utterly captivating. Cinquemani

Perfume Genius, “On the Floor” (Dir: Mike Hadreas)

A sharp pivot from the ornate, pastel-toned floral set pieces of his “Slip Away” video, Mike Hadreas’s self-directed “On the Floor” clip is rugged and unadorned, relying primarily on Tate Justas’s writhing, restless choreography and Hadreas’s no-holds-barred dance performance to match the song’s catharsis. The singer trades a ruffled pink suit and matching gloves for a stained tank top, rolling around between a stack of tires and a boulder wrapped in chains. The video ends with an exhausted Hadreas lying alone on the ground, clumps of dirt clinging to his back as he smiles at the camera. It’s a moment that captures the video’s redemptive ethos, mirroring the audience’s gratification in watching someone let it all loose through music. Mason

Bebe Rexha featuring Doja Cat, “Baby I’m Jealous” (Dir: Hannah Lux Davis)

Bookended by amusing scenes of Bebe Rexha, Doja Cat, and their extravagantly dressed squad at a Chinese restaurant, the campy “Baby I’m Jealous” finds Bebe lamenting love in the time of social media and naïvely romanticizing bygone eras. Whisked away by a magical fortune cookie forced upon her by the restaurant’s persistent hostess, she quickly discovers that the past is filled with oppressive corsets, cheating cavemen, and literal snakes. The video’s unabashed silliness is made all the more charming by its liberal use of very obvious green-screen. Camp

Rosalía & Travis Scott, “TKN” (Dir: CANADA)

The Rosalía Cinematic Universe, developed with frequent collaborator CANADA, is meticulously detailed and populated by an array of symbolic objects. In the video for “TKN,” those include a giant red velvet donut slowly ripped apart and devoured by children, a dead bird that falls from the sky and cracks the pavement around it, and a “There’s No Place Like Home” cross-stitch that bounces with the song’s thumping beat. Together, they expand beautifully on the maternal dynamic between Rosalía and a swarm of children who dance around her, tackle her, and play with her hair, by turns performing public unrest and familial comfort. Mason

Rina Sawayama, “XS” (Dir: Ali Kurr)

Whereas some music videos can feel unrelated to their sound and lyrical content, the clip for Rina Sawayama’s R&B/nü-metal fusion “XS” correlates perfectly with its frenzied, post-ironic depiction of consumer culture. Over sounds of sportscar engines revving, the unidentified contents of Sawayama’s fictional brand of water swirl in a shimmering gold cloud before she takes the stage in a faux infomercial. As expected, even the least extravagant portions of the video are cartoonish and hyperkinetic, with multicolored makeup, hammy acting, and TikTok-ready choreography. At some point, it goes beautifully awry, with a revelation that RINA Water is—shocker—produced inhumanely. The over-the-top video is a model of how conscious pop can be both riotously fun and critical. Mason

Sufjan Stevens, “Sugar” (Dir: Ezra Hurwitz)

Sufjan Stevens’s lyrics on “Sugar” consist mostly of vague gestures toward oppression—“Don’t drink the poison or they’ll defeat us”—but this is by design. The song proposes love as an escape from America’s ills, so the lyrics themselves tend to avoid mood-killing specifics. In the song’s video, a nuclear family dances around their cozy home, surrounded by cherry pies, toy trains, and glass flower vases, items that would not be out of place in a 1950s homemaking magazine. Eventually, the yellow wallpaper begins to peel, and it becomes apparent that this stifling, dimly lit house is a façade, a cage, with the video’s narrow aspect ratio heightening the sense of restriction. As the kitchen catches fire and cracks appear in the walls, the family thrashes and breaks their possessions until the house collapses around them. Finally, they’re left in an open field, walking into the distance with nothing left to confine them. Mason

Harry Styles, “Adore You” (Dir: Dave Meyers)

Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar” may have garnered all of the headlines, but “Adore You” is a charming, admittedly absurdist visual that puts a unique twist on the fish-out-of-water yarn. Directed by Dave Meyers, the video finds the former One Direction member pouring his heart and soul into saving a rapidly growing, and increasingly traumatized, fish—eventually affirming the age-old lesson that if you love something, let it go. Cinquemani

Moses Sumney, “Cut Me” (Dir: Moses Sumney)

The music video for “Cut Me” opens with Moses Sumney riding in the back of an ambulance, fogging up an oxygen mask as he sings, before cutting to scenes of the artist gaining strength and inspiration. He dances and hobbles around a stage wearing a black dress cut like a medical gown; he performs a choreographed pattern of lying down, sitting up, and lying back down in a hospital bed wrapped in climbing ivy; he poses on a casket, calm and modelesque. Just as the song itself is spacious with occasional baroque flourishes, the clip’s visuals are stark but livened up by Sumney’s personality and by bursts of saturated reds and greens. By the end of the video, he’s reinvigorated, standing on the roof of the ambulance, black cape billowing behind him, reins in hand like a desperado resisting despair. Mason

Jessie Ware, “Spotlight” (Dir: Jovan Todorovic)

Shot in Belgrade aboard former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito’s infamous Blue Train, the celebratory video for Jessie Ware’s “Spotlight” captures a kaleidoscope of emotions as the singers walks, struts, floats, and dances among the train’s passengers. The mesmerizing clip was directed by Serbian filmmaker Jovan Todorovic, who turns the Art Deco locomotive into a bustling discotheque that serves as the perfect backdrop for Ware’s blissed-out reverie. Cinquemani

The Weeknd, “Blinding Lights” (Dir: Anton Tammi)

The dizzying video for the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” pulls out all the viral-clip stops: an exhilarating running sequence, a slowed-down hallucinatory interlude, luxury cars, bloody makeup effects, a giddy Abel Tesfaye dancing like no one’s watching—enough bells and whistles for the entire Top 40 but rendered with cinematic elegance by director Anton Tammi. The clip’s story progresses as if Tesfaye’s blustering persona in Uncut Gems inherited the anarchic sensibilities of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, with the singer on a reckless rampage through Las Vegas. While not quite as provocative as his video for “Too Late,” “Blinding Lights” is a menacing, indulgent romp that delivers an intoxicating dose of wish fulfillment. Mason

Tierra Whack, “Dora” (Dir: Alex De Corte)

The video for “Dora” is a precise summation of Tierra Whack’s vision, a brilliant collision of whimsical imagery and adult themes. Much in the vein of the viral “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” web series, Whack and director Alex Da Corte pay tribute to the enduring positivity of Fred Rogers and Jim Henson, deepening the colorful aesthetics of children’s media with a sense that something is off. In one scene, a dense, squirming horde of Muppets surrounds an uncanny 3D rendering of Whack, gold grille in place, boasting about her expensive habits. In another, she sprouts neon pink horse legs, her digital form unnervingly twisting back and forth as she expands her lavish wish list. This constant tension between superficial happiness and underlying trouble has made her distinguished videography enchanting since 2017’s eerie, Grammy-nominated “Mumbo Jumbo” clip, building Whack World into a multifaceted, vibrant emotional landscape. Mason

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